U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Do We Need from Our Professional Societies Today?: An Open Thread

One of the many lines of argument in the ongoing debate over David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s The History Manifesto concerns revisions to the work made in the midst of the conversation over it.  As readers of this blog probably know, when The History Manifesto appeared last October it was both published as a conventional book and made free for download under a Creative Commons license by its publisher Cambridge University Press.  The online version was not merely a more convenient way to access the book. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in an April 9 report on the controversy surrounding Armitage and Guldi’s book,

Unlike a traditional book, the online version of The History Manifesto displays some of the interactivity of a massive open online course, or MOOC. It features video content, a blog, a reader forum, event listings, and social-media posts from people who use the hashtag “#historymanifesto” to discuss the book on Twitter.

Armitage and Guldi see this interactivity as an opportunity for their work to improve and evolve in real time, a form of continuous peer review, in which they can respond to their critics in a way that refines their arguments to everyone’s benefit.  But to many of those critics, including Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, whose exchange with Armitage and Guldi appears in this month’s issue of the American Historical Review, these on-the-fly revisions raise ethical questions. Some, including Lynn Hunt, have questioned how open Armitage and Guldi have been about changes to their text. Armitage and Guldi argue that they’ve been transparent, noting changes on the blog at the book’s website.  AHR editor Robert A. Schneider, in the recent Chronicle piece quoted above, suggests that the controversy over these revisions

just alerts us to what is obviously going to be an ongoing question: What is the text? If it’s a changing entity, it creates certain problems that we’re going to have to address about protocol.

Which brings us to professional societies and a central role that I believe they need to play in the near future.

The American Historical Association’s Professional Division is charged with promoting “integrity, fairness, and civility in the practice of history—in educational institutions, museums and archives, government agencies and non-profit organizations, and all other places where historians study and interpret the past.”  One of its specific duties is “articulating ethical standards and best practices in the historical profession.”  As the disagreement over the ethics of the Armitage and Guldi’s handling of the text of The History Manifesto suggests, the world of digital publication raises a complicated series of questions involving ethics and “best practices.” Especially in the last decade or so, since eschewing its former role as a kind of jury in cases of alleged professsional misconduct by AHA members, the Professional Division has intervened in questions of ethical standards and best practices primarily by issuing reports.  Though such reports can be helpful, I would love to see the Professional Division organize a broad, focused, and ongoing conversation on the issues raised by digital scholarship.  Though at the end of the day the Division should certainly issue a report on these matters, the answers — and even the questions — are unclear enough that engaging the broadest possible community of historians in their exploration will lead to better conclusions.

This, then, is one of my answers to the question posed by the title of this post. I want to see professional societies in history help the community of historians to grapple with the issues raised by the digital revolution and work toward building a consensus on solutions to them.

What do you want from your professional societies?

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just to thank you for, among other things, the pdf link to the AHR exchange on ‘The History Manifesto’. Guldi and Armitage are giving a talk, followed by a panel discussion, on Mon. (4/20) that I’m planning to attend. Prob. not planning to ask any questions, as I haven’t read the book, but I might try to look at the exchange beforehand.

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